Flurry of action hints at 'historic' time for college athletes

The voices are ringing out across the sporting landscape. From Austin to Iowa City, from Clemson to Columbus, the cries for change are pleading to be heard. 

College athletes are demanding equality and creating kinetic and dynamic change. In the wake of George Floyd’s homicide by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, the sports world has been indelibly altered in just a few short weeks. And the most promising part is that this feels like the beginning.

Should we start at Clemson? President Jim Clements announced on Friday morning that the board of trustees passed a ruling to rename an honors college and requested a building on campus be renamed because both namesakes had direct links to slavery. This came just days after former Clemson stars Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins petitioned on social media for changes. 

Should we look at Texas? A group of football players and other athletes announced via social media that they want the school to rename buildings on campus and change the school song played at athletic events because of ties to racism.

The Texas athletes also want to add a black athletic history exhibit to the school’s hall of fame. The players threatened to not take part in recruiting visits for incoming players and other alumni events until the changes are made.

“We aim to hold the athletic department and university to a higher standard by not only asking them to keep their promise of condemning racism on our campus, but to go beyond this by taking action to make Texas more comfortable and inclusive for the black athletes and the black community,” said the Texas athletes in a statement.

Should we go to Iowa City? Coach Kirk Ferentz held a news conference with three players on Friday to speak about the “raw” conversations within the program in the wake of a wave of accusations that strength coach Chris Doyle fostered an environment where black players felt degraded. (Doyle is suspended pending an investigation.)

The changes, stands and shifts are happening in myriad ways. The NCAA, an organization that operates glacially, announced that they are “encouraging all member schools” to assist students in registering to vote in the upcoming election and designate Nov. 3 as a day off to accommodate that. (Last year, college basketball held one of its marquee events, the Champions Classic, on Election Day.)

College sports isn’t alone. The changes are rippling through other sports. The Confederate flag has been banned in NASCAR. NBA players are rallying together to make sure they are treated fairly when they are quarantined in the bubble for the conclusion of their season. A coup in the NFL offices led to Michael Thomas, Patrick Mahomes and a slew of other top stars guilting the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell into saying that Black Lives Matter

It’d be naïve to celebrate this evolution as a revolution, as there’d been too many decades of systemic racism in our country to get too excited about a few weeks percolating with promising changes. (After all, President Trump is still using Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling to protest police brutality as a cultural prop to rally his base.) But it’d also be naïve to ignore the significance of the baby steps toward change, and root hard for them to become bigger and more pronounced. 

This is especially true in the college athletics community as the unpaid stars have found their voice, channeled their power and begun steps to make sure that they’re heard.

“You’re seeing a lot more student-athletes speaking up, and it’s great,” Clements told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “I’m really proud of my guys who are taking a stand and using the platform.”

That includes star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has begun forging a compelling identity the past few months. He’s raised thousands for charity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and spoke vocally and eloquently about racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s killing.

“I’m siding with my brothers that deal, and continuously deal, with things I will never experience,” Lawrence said on Twitter. “The injustice is clear… and so it the hate. It can no longer be explained away. If you’re still ‘explaining’ it – check your heart and ask why.”

Lawrence has comported himself better than his own head coach, Dabo Swinney, who so far has failed to fully exploit his platform to affect change by talking in circles. Lawrence and three teammates — Mike Jones, Darien Rencher and Cornell Powell — are leading a peaceful protest this weekend designed to bring the community together in the Clemson area. 

Former Harvard Crimson and current Ohio State forward Seth Towns was detained during a protest in Columbus, Ohio. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There have almost been too many important moments to rattle off without this story becoming a list. Athletes with ties to a bevy of schools — Utah, Clemson and Iowa, to name a few — have detailed racial incidents with coaches on social media. Then there was Marvin Wilson, the star Florida State defensive tackle, calling out coach Mike Norvell for airbrushing the truth about reaching out to all his FSU players in the wake of Floyd’s death. There’s former Harvard star Seth Towns, who transferred to Ohio State, speaking out after getting detained at a peaceful protest in Columbus.

“I was standing up for what I believe in,” Towns told Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg. “I wasn’t stopping whether I was being detained, arrested or beaten.”

Longtime observers can’t recall a similar moment to what we’re in right now.

“I think this going to change athletics,” former college basketball coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said on Friday. “We’re in an amazing period of time. It’s obviously historic.”

Amid the dizzying flood of news on Friday was the reminder from Florida, which signed a name, image and likeness bill into law, that suggests just how different college sports will look in nearly a year.   

What started as a flurry of statements from coaches two weeks ago in the wake of Floyd’s death has been followed up by much more significant actions by athletes around college sports. The paradigm shifts are just beginning.

Here’s hoping that we remember this time as the start of something much bigger.

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